Mark 5:1-17; 7:24-37 — Healing enemies

Reading:  Mark 5:1-17, 7:24-37

When we read the how Jesus went to the land of the Garasenes, many things stand out. There is the fact this encounter took place in a graveyard, that the Demons were named Legion, that these demons went into pigs, and killed the entire herd of pigs, and that when they saw the formerly demon possessed man healed and in his right mind, they were afraid and asked Jesus to leave.

When I think of this, I notice that the land of the Garasenes is a place, so I look at a map. Looking at the map from this time period, I see on the coast of the Sea of Galilee is a city named Hippus, then after that you walk about 6 miles crossing the river Yarmuk and arrive at Gadara. Gerasa is deep inland, located at the same place as the modern Jordanian city of Jerash — which is more like a 40 mile walk. There is some variation in manuscripts however — some appear to refer to Gerasa, other appear to mention Gadara. Either way, to get to his destination, he had to cross the territory of at least one city state, and at minimum he had to walk a couple hours inland and cross a river.

Hippus, Gadara, Gerasa are all cities in a region know as Decapolis. Decapolis was a group of 10 Greek cities founded in the 4th century BC. These cities controlled a relatively large region of land, creating a region that was colonized and largely populated by Greeks. Decopolis used the Greek language, Greek Architecture, and was culturally Greek in a larger region that used the Aramaic language and was culturally Hebrew and Canaanite. Decapolis is a large Greek colony that supplanted those who were indigenous to the region.

Now, I know that for the most part our ancestors were colonists — we know what that looks like. Jerusalem also knew what it looked like to turn a city into a Greek colony. You might know about the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. This is the celebration of the cleansing and re-dedication of the Temple. One of the Cities that the Greeks tried to colonize and make culturally Greek was Jerusalem. One of the things they tried to do was to Hellenize the Jews — or, one might say de-Judize them.

The grievances the Jews had against the Greeks were pretty significant. They tried to force them to eat pork, and otherwise violate the Torah so they would better conform to Greek culture, and perhaps the most significant offense was that Antiochus entered Jerusalem and the temple re-dedicated to Zeus. He had an alter of Zeus placed at the alter, and scarified a pig to Zeus in the temple. The Temple was also looted, and copies of the Torah were destroyed.

There was a revolt, and Judas Maccabees and others drove the Greeks out of Jerusalem, rededicated the Temple, and started a new Jewish kingdom — this Jewish kingdom remained independent until it was replaced with Herod’s kingdom; under Herod, they were a client-state of the Roman Empire; meaning they were not colonized but they were not independent either.

Here is the thing, this is a story of Jesus going somewhere uncomfortable for him and his disciples, and there is no obvious reason why he goes there. The city named in Mark implies he walked from morning to dusk into territory run by historic enemies; the last great enemies that the Jewish people fought and drove out of Judah.

His destination was also a place that would have caused discomfort; Jesus goes to a graveyard where none of his own relatives are buried. As you might know there is a taboo of dead bodies, so it violates this taboo for Jesus to enter a foreign graveyard. The Demons introduce themselves as Legion, the Roman equivalent of a modern Brigade — but most important, the demons introduced themselves with the name of what oppresses the Jewish people. When he cast out the demons, they went into a herd of unclean animals — pigs. Everything about Decapolis was something that was foreign to Jesus and his disciples; and the people there begged Jesus to leave when the man was found in his right mind.

What strikes me the most about this story is how one of its elements is not unique, but instead a theme that is repeated. This is not the only time that Jesus goes into a place that makes Jews uncomfortable — it is not the only time he visits historic enemies. The Sunday School lessons skip Chapter 7; in Chapter 7, Jesus goes to Phoenicia, specifically to the region of Tyre; Phoenicia was the last enclave of Canaanites — an ancient enemy of Israel. While Jesus is in Phoenicia, he speaks to a woman and casts a demon out from her daughter. The following miracle has him returning to Decapolis to heal a deaf man.

The pattern I see in this story, and in those following is that Jesus, with no clear reason why, travels to visit Israel’s enemies. Jesus finds a person who is in need of healing, and he saves that person; whether it is a Greek man who is a danger to himself and others, or a Canaanite girl, or a Greek man who is deaf and mute.

In Matthew, I would point to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells those who hear to love their enemies. In Mark, instead, I see this in a series of stories, very close to one another where Jesus leaves Jewish country to deliberately visit the nations that are historic enemies; and while he is there he offers healing and salvation to those who need it. The first time, there is fear and Jesus is asked to leave, but the second and third time people seek Jesus to ask him to heal somebody they know who needs it.

Sometimes it is easy to think about love for one’s neighbor as something passive. Sometimes we think of it as merely trying to get along. There are many times when I think of things this way — I want to be silent and invisible. I don’t want to make peace so much as I want to avoid conflict. I certainly don’t want to go somewhere uncomfortable. Jesus showed me another way though. Jesus shows me that sometimes loving enemies means going where they are and giving them what they need.

When Peter told these stories of Jesus going to the lands of the Gentiles, and even going to places that were unclean, he told a story that prefigured something in his own life. Peter was the disciple who had the vision that told him that the Church was to accept the Gentiles, without asking them to adopt the customs of the Jews. Peter was also the first apostle to go specifically to the Gentiles — he headed up a mission to Antioch, and he was the first to speak on behalf of the Gentiles to the Church in Jerusalem.

When Jesus went to Greek cities, or Canaanite cities he personally demonstrated that His gospel was of a wider scope than just the people of Judah. Yes, Jesus eventually gave a great Commission that called for the disciples to make disciples even at the ends of the earth — but He did more than speak this, he demonstrated that his mission went beyond the boundaries of his own country and his own people. Jesus saving a Greek man in a Greek graveyard from demon possession is more than another miracle story — it is a story that shows that the gospel is for everyone.

Mark 4:21-34 The kingdom of God is like mustard.

Reading: Mark 4:21-34

Last week we studied the parable of the soils — and this week we will focus on the parable that tells us that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed; which starts so small, yet it becomes something huge. This is a parable that many of us can connect with. Anybody who has made pickles likely has put whole seeds in the brine for flavor — I have a little jar of mustard seeds myself, though I do not know if these are fertile.

Now, it is pretty easy to get hung up on some of the details of this parable. Jesus talks about how huge the mustard plant is; big enough for birds to shelter in them; but, those of us who are familiar with the plant know that it is generally between three and eight feet tall. It is a large plant for the garden, but it is not exactly a tree either.

Perhaps the best way to explain how the ancients saw the mustard plant is to tell you what an ancient writer said about it. Pliny the elder wrote a 10 volume set on natural history we think was published in 77 AD. Pliny’s Natural history is basically an encyclopedia of plants and animals. Pliny writes on Mustard:

With its pungent taste and fiery effect, mustard is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being planted: but on the other hand, when it has once been sown, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once. (Pliny the Elder, Book 19, chapter 54)

Basically what we are looking at is an edible weed. Mustard is good for seasoning and good to eat. You can eat the greens; the seeds can be used as a spice, they can be pressed for oil, and they can make a flour that is quite nutritious. The problem is that the plant does not need any human help or effort to grow. It is not something you would be likely to plant in your garden, because it has a tendency to spread and take over the entire garden. Nobody wants a plant that it is nearly impossible to weed out!

Mustard has always been a weed that plagues field crops such as wheat and corn. When mustard is in a grain-field, farmers will find that their yield is cut in half, and it is even harder on a corn crop than it is on wheat and Soybeans. Farmers will delay planting so they can plow it under, or burn it, or if they have GMO crops that are highly resistant to herbicide they will kill mustard with chemicals.

Even though mustard grows like a weed, and in many contexts is a weed, it has also been domesticated for over 5000 years. Mustard grows well in a wide variety of soils with minimal effort. Mustard is one of those plants that can grow in very poor soil, and somehow enriches the soil it grows in. Because of this, mustard is sometimes used as a cover crop, and a green manure. In addition, mustard grows extremely quickly, produces eatable leaves and seeds that are valuable for both their flavor and their oil.

A single mustard plant will produce thousands of seeds in just 2 or 3 months. The plant produces seed-pods, each with a number of seeds inside. If the seeds are harvested, a single plant will produce thousands of seeds, and if the plant is not harvested, the seed pods will rupture and seed the whole area, and new mustard plants will grow. If the gardener is careless, mustard can spread to take over the whole garden — and the garden will fill with birds who are there to eat the bounty of seeds.

The kingdom of God is like mustard. The seed is so tiny, but it takes root and grows. In one generation, a single seed becomes a cup, or more, of seeds. Before the growing season is over, the scattered seeds take root and another generation comes; it does not take many seasons for a single seed to have filled an entire field with mustard plants. The kingdom of God is like mustard; something that takes root when the soil is less than perfect, and yet it will fill the field giving nourishment to the soil, to the birds, and to people. Once we’ve got God’s kingdom planted and growing in us — we have all of it’s nourishing benefit, but it is not something that is easy to control, nor to free ourselves of it; God’s kingdom will take us over.

Last week, the parable of the soils talked about a sower planting grain — mustard isn’t grain, and if the sower planted mustard instead, the mustard may have pushed out the weeds, given enough moisture it would have grown in the rocky soil, and in good soil it would have produced 5,000, 10,000, and 50,000 fold. I believe that we are invited to have the kingdom of God in us — and that our hearts and lives are where this mustard will grow.

Remember, though, mustard isn’t the only parable that applies to the kingdom of heaven, and to disciples. We see, and are, salt and light. There is a sense that the Kingdom of God isn’t only to sprout and change a few people’s hearts, but it is supposed to enlighten the whole world, to bring flavor to the whole world, to in a real sense bring salvation to the whole world.

When we look at the world around us; it often seems like the kingdom of heaven is the furthest thing away in the world. The west has been secularized. Even devout Christians often seem to prefer the way the kingdoms of this world works to the kingdom of heaven. Sometimes it seems like things are being pushed backwards.

The truth is, it is exactly as Pliny wrote: when the mustard grows, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it. We forget how far we have come. The wisdom of the ancients and the world was that only the wealthy and the powerful had any value — and that the gods had no interest in the poor, only in the most elite. Jesus challenged this, and now the world at large realizes that the poor have value; this is the effect of Mustard.

To get a sense of how strong this view was, remember when Herod killed the babies after the wise men came? Historians do not mention this at all; granted, we are talking about a couple dozen poor kids who would never grow up to be anybody anyways. Today, this would be news, and would be condemned as an atrocity, this is the effect of Mustard.

Ancient Romans would take unwanted babies out into the wilderness to die; today, there is a real attempt to save babies, including saving those who might otherwise be thrown away. Systems have been built with the intent to save such babies; first by churches, but also now by governments. We have gone a long way since churches had ‘baby hatches’ or foundling wheels to collect unwanted babies and make sure they were cared for from about 1000 years ago to when they have become unnecessary in the western world in the 19th century. (Though, the practice has recently been resurrected here in Indiana.) We live in a world that looks for ways to save babies that would once be taken out to the woods and left to die — this is the effect of mustard.

Jesus was born into a culture where most human life was not valued. Blood sports and executions were popular entertainment. Even as Rome became Christianized, the cultural norms of the Roman people still continued. It took centuries for the gladiators to stop killing each other for the entertainment of the masses — however, these ended in the fifth century. A monk, Telemachus went from the East to Rome. While in Rome, he went to the Coliseum and went onto the field where the gladiators were fighting, and asked them to stop. The crowd was so furious that he interrupted their entertainment that they threw rocks at the monk, and stoned him to death. After the audience killed a monk, the gladiator games came to an end, and Telmachus’ name was included in the names of Christian martyrs that people remember. Ever since this time, it would be unthinkable to re-introduce entertainment where two people try to kill each other; this is the effect of mustard. (Theodort’s Ecclesiastical History, Book 5 chapter 26)

The kingdom of God is like Mustard; and that Mustard is growing in the Church, but it also spreads to everything that the Church touches. The world we live in is changed because the Seed grows throughout the world. The Kingdom of God is taking root — and, while there are attempts to weed it out, Pliny the Elder was correct: It is scarcely possible to get the place free of it.

Mark 4:1-20 — Parable of the soils

Reading: Mark 4:1-20

The first 3 chapters of Mark were about Jesus traveling and doing miracles and slowly losing favor with those in power. Chapter 4 is fairly unique in Mark — it is a group of parables: The sower, the lamp and the bushel basket, the growing seed, and the Mustard Seed. Mark chooses very few examples of Jesus’ teaching; so why does Peter want to to tell people about the Sower and the lamp?

The parable of the Sower; or, it might be better for me to call it the parable of the soils is unique not only because it is one of the few teachings of Jesus to be part of Mark, but also because it is one of the few teachings that Jesus interpreted for his Disciples — the interpretation Jesus gives is:

And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” — Mark 4:13-20 NRSV

I think of Peter telling this story, and I see one clear thing: We are the soil — Peter was the soil and he was well aware of what kind of soil that he was. Peter was very much rocky soil — he was often the first of the disciples to proclaim his faith, and he withered so quickly. Peter was the one to step out of the boat, take a few steps on the water in faith, and to doubt and fall in. Peter was the one who said he would follow Jesus to his death, and yet on the night of the Crucifixion denied Christ.

Even after this, Peter was the first to call for the church to accept Gentile coverts to Christianity, yet when he was in Antioch he fails to practice what he preached because when those who felt that one must convert to Judaism before Christianity came to Antioch, and when these people refused to eat with Gentile Christians — Peter also stopped eating with the Gentile Christians. Even as a Christian leader, Peter had these rocky soil moments where he failed to live up to his beliefs due to the presence of opposition.

Peter saw the other soil types too. As Peter told this story year after year, he must have thought about all the people he knew, and all the people that Jesus talked with and worked with. Peter was able to see people who reacted in these ways, just as clearly as he could reflect on his own reaction.
Peter saw the scribes and the Pharisees, some of whom sat at Jesus’ feet and asked questions, yet they were like the hard soil of a well worn path. These people fell back to what they knew, and could not receive what came from beyond themselves. Perhaps it was because they listened to answer back, to debate and to be clever. Whatever reason their soil was hard, he seeds sat, and were eaten — they heard, but nothing sank in.

When I think of the seeds that fell into the thorny ground, those who are choked out by weeds makes me think of Judas. Judas was choked out by his greed; this is something that was hinted several times before he sold Jesus. Later in scripture we see that others also grow in this thorny ground — entire churches sometimes seem to be harmed by thees weeds.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve got all these kinds of soil in me. There are times when I, like the Pharisee listen to answer instead of listening to hear. There are times when I’m excited, and then too afraid, and there are times when I have more than one thing in my mind, and there are weeds. There is something about this parable that feels right.

What do we do with this though? There are some who would suggest that Jesus tells us this, because we are supposed to become good soil. There are others who tell us that we spread the seed anyways — but, neither of these makes sense to me — we are soil.

One thing I can say is that good soil does not appear all by itself; the farmer changes soil. Good soil left to itself will become weedy soil. Every garden needs weeded. If the soil is shallow and rocky, the rocks can be broken up and removed. Farmers and gardeners have been improving the land that they have even before the time of Jesus. The gardener we have is one who does miracles.

Think of the Apostle Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament — he was a Pharisee, and somebody who’s heart was completely hardened to the message of the gospel. Somehow, Jesus changed his soil so something could sprout and grow well. Peter might have been rocky, and he might have denied Christ — but his courage grew. Peter kept preaching, even when the authorities attempted to silence him. Peter grew enough in faith that he did follow Jesus to a cross — tradition tells us that Peter died on a cross in Rome when Nero was persecuting the Christians. God changed Peter’s soil.

The seed is scattered, and if the gardener does nothing, our soil is going to be rocky, or weedy, or just too hard for the seed to take root. I’m not going to tell you to weed yourself, or pull out your rocks — because I’m aware that there are things that we cannot change simply by wishing things were different. The dirt is as it is — but, I do believe that we have a gardener that can and will work our soil with a goal to make it the good soil that produces a crop.

Mark 2:1-17 Authority to forgive sin

Reading: Mark 2:1-17

Last week we read a miracle list that filled the last half of the first chapter of Mark. Mark chapter 2 also begins with a healing — but it is different — it is much longer, and it gives some information about Jesus that we rarely think about; where does Jesus call home, and what is it like when he goes home?

Capernaum is one of the three towns that Jesus might call home, the other two being his birthplace, Bethlehem, and Nazareth where he grew up. It was a small town by the sea of Galilee, with an economy dependent upon fish. The disciple Peter’s home was in Capernam, and there is a church build on the ruins of an ancient house that many believe Peter lived in.

Remember, I told you one of the things I love about Mark is that in Mark, Jesus seems the most human. Jesus just went on his first preaching tour, and what happens? Can Jesus take off his sandals, scratch his feet, and rest? No — people hear Jesus is home, and everybody starts banging at his door — his house fills up with people, and there are people outside listening to hear what He might say. The people who run to Jesus’ door are not just the common uneducated people, but even the scribes have come to hear Jesus teach.

Now, there is a whole crowd of people at Jesus’ home — the crowd is so big that you can’t even get there. Some people come hoping that Jesus can heal their friend, just like Jesus healed so many others while he was going on his preaching tour. They got to the house, and the house was full, and there was a crow of people pressed at the front door; so they bring their friend up onto the roof, make a hole in the roof and drop him down to Jesus.

What I’ve always found remarkable is that Jesus does not get angry for them destroying the roof. I’ve read that most likely this roof was of a kind that needed repaired very often; at least annually, or if it rains hard; most likely, it would be a flat roof sealed with sun-dried clay, so the roof would need re-sealed every time the clay cracked in the sun or the rain washed too much away — so, it is not quite as obnoxious as it sounds, but, you still wouldn’t be thrilled to see somebody digging a hole in your roof.

Anyways, this paralyzed man is lowered into the room, and Jesus says something different than what he had said in former chapters. Jesus says: “Your sins are forgiven.” He did not just heal the man, but told him that his sins were forgiven first. This is rather surprising, as this isn’t why the man came. The literate people talked among themselves complaining that Jesus couldn’t have any right to forgive sins, the Jesus proved he could by telling the man to get up and go home.

This makes me wonder why did Jesus need to publicly forgive the man’s sins before he was healed? It also makes me wonder why the educated scholars of the Torah really cared about his sins. Personally, I suffer the sinfulness of the powerful much more than I suffer the sinfulness of the powerless. I do know that in John’s gospel when Jesus healed the man who was born blind, he was asked who’s sin caused the man to be born blind. There is the idea that if somebody is suffering, it is a just punishment seems to be a repeated false idea. Job speaks against, Ecclesiastes and many of the Psalms speak against it, yet it is repeated again and again — even today. Whatever this man’s sin was, I am sure that it did not affect the lives of those who cared so much about Christ forgiving it.

After Jesus heals the paralyzed man, he goes to a Tax collector’s house, and eats with the guy’s colleagues and friends. Now, this is very much different than forgiving a man who didn’t have the ability to harm anybody; these Tax collectors were collaborators with the occupying Romans, thus traitors to the people of Judah, they were sinners of the worst kind — sinners who’s sinfulness clearly harmed everybody around them. The question comes — why does Jesus eat with sinners — even sinners of the worst kind; and Jesus responds: “Those who are well have no needs of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Mark 1:21-34 He speaks with authority

Reading: Mark 1:21-24

Our Sunday School lesson spoke of Jesus’ authority. When he taught, he taught with authority, not like the scribes; then it moves on to give a list of one healing after another; and next week we will talk about another healing. This passage has Jesus teaching in the temple, it has Jesus teaching the synagogues all over Galilee — but, like all of Mark, we don’t know what he is teaching, we know what he is doing and we know that when people hear Jesus, they are impressed.

The only thing Mark tells us about Jesus’ teaching is that the people were astounded, because he spoke with authority, and not like the scribes. It is difficult for me to guess what this means, and I don’t find even a hint what this might mean in Mark’s gospel — but if I check other sources I have enough to make a guess.

When I check the Talmud, I see the writings of many Rabbis; everybody cites an authority outside themselves — and while they might disagree with their peers, it is clear that they are interpreters, not authorities. if I look at examples of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew and Luke, I see phrases such as: “You have heard it said\… but I say to you.” In speaking like this, Jesus is establishing himself as enough of an authority that he can make a new statement. This power is very significant when he says thins such as: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)

Now, I know people will quote the first part of this to speak of revenge. I’ve even once heard somebody say: “An eye for an eye” when asked his favorite Bible passage. Of course, people who say “An eye for an eye” rarely have any desire to follow it. An eye for an Eye is found in both Exodus and Deuteronomy — this is the law of revenge stating that revenge is not to be punitive, but equal to the injury suffered. An eye for an eye condemns the great acts of revenge we are used to. Using this standard, we cannot justify killing hundreds of thousands to take revenge on the death of thousands. This is true, even though I’ve seen this verse used to justify exactly that.

Jesus, however, speaks with authority. The scribes are under the authority of the Torah — they can talk about what it means, but they cannot say these words: “But I say to you.” Jesus calls for forgiveness, instead of taking the allowed and measured vengeance. Jesus says, instead of taking the vengeance allowed by law, I tell you to forgive and take none at all. Jesus spoke with such authority that he was willing to offer an alternative instead of deferring to it. To quote John, Jesus spoke with authority, because he is the Word of God, made flesh.

As soon as people were shocked at Jesus speaking with authority, he started healing people. The first person he healed was right at the synagogue. The man was disruptive — he was, according to scripture, demon possessed. Now, these days Americans don’t use the words demon possessed very often; no, we use words such as mental illness. I can’t say whether demons were more active at that time than now, or whether we have come to a better knowledge of what is actually going on — I suspect that it is the second one though there are times when I look at a malicious kind of crazy, and I am nearly convinced that it is demonic. To tell the truth, if I had the power to cast out demons, and could see a disturbed and malicious man made whole again I would do it right now .  I do know I can pray to the One who demonstrated that he is the One who does miracles.

Following the healing man who was, in our current language, mentally ill  Jesus went to Simon’s house, healed Simon’s mother-in-law from her fever, and then healed “many who were sick and cast out demons; but he would not permit the demons to speak because they knew him.” He preached, and healed and preached and healed – and the section ends with him healing a man with leprosy — the most dreaded illness of his society — it was not only a death sentence, but it was an illness that would separate you from society the rest of your life. If one recovered, there was a process for being examined, declared in good health, and return to the community, but recover would take a miracle — of course, Jesus the divine healer and miracle worker healed him.

Mark tells of of a miracle worker who takes the place of John who has been arrested. We are not told what Jesus teaches and preaches beyond a few words: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the in the good news.” In these words, we have what is so dangerous, and yet what is such good news: God’s kingdom is near. I’m no miracle worker, but I can offer this good news as well. No matter how far the governments of the world seem from God — God’s kingdom is near. I believe that for us God’s kingdom is even here with us just as Christ is with us. One of the pious sayings I see on social media is the phrase: “It does not matter who is president because Jesus is Lord.” Now; I’m enough in this world to feel that it does matter, but there is something about this that rings true. Whether I’m in a nation full of people who honor God, from children to politicians; or if I find myself in ancient Rome during Nero’s reign, Jesus is Lord. The kingdom of God is at hand — it is so near I can reach out and grab it and make it part of my life. Nero was not strong enough to stop the mouths of Christians; for they reached out and grabbed the kingdom of God and proclaimed, even when it meant death: “Jesus is Lord.”

Mark 1:1-20

Reading:  Mark 1:1-20

I am glad to start our study of Mark. Mark was never my go-to gospel; I read Matthew or Luke and John. John was my favorite, because it is the most clear about who Jesus was. Matthew was my favorite to read about what Jesus taught — though, in reflection, this was purely personal preference — Luke had some favorite stories in it however. I didn’t really read Mark because Mark gives so few details; all but a few words of Mark are in Matthew, Luke, or both — and those things that are unique to Mark are things that I really don’t understand why they are there at all. To be fair I did not appreciate Mark until I head a storyteller recite it, in full.

As you might know, Mark is commonly considered to be the oldest gospel. Mark is thought to have been written down while Nero was persecuting Christians. There is some debate in among early Christian writers whether this is John Mark that we see in Acts, or if this is another Mark — but, either way, Mark is identified as a disciple of Peter.

First century Christian leader Papias is one of the few Christians who wrote at the same time the New Testament was being written; Papias was early enough that there were people around who actually saw Jesus — but late enough that it became clear that Jesus might not come back before they died. Mark was likely written about the same time that Papias was born, and the other three gospels would have been written in his lifetime. Papias was best known for writing a 5 volume work on the sayings of Jesus, which unfortunately is lost.

Papias tells us that John the Elder told him that Mark was Peter’s interpreter; and that Mark wrote down the story that Peter told from memory. John further told Papias that Mark related this accurately, and that he was careful not to omit or recall anything falsely.

This tradition tells us that Mark was a story that was told, and a story that was transmitted — it is, in its earliest form an oral Gospel. It is the story of Jesus, as related and remembered by Peter. This story starts when the name Jesus is first known — Jesus was shown to the world by John the Baptist. Peter’s story of Jesus starts maybe 6 weeks before he became a disciple.

Peter’s story starts with John the Baptist preaching the repentance of sin, and baptizing — and that one would come after him who would baptize with the holy spirit. Jesus then goes to the wilderness, then when John is arrested Jesus enters public ministry, stepping right into John the Baptist’s shoes.

One thing that I’ve learned is that the way somebody begins a story colors the whole story. The story Peter tells begins with John introducing Jesus — and right away, what happens? John is arrested for preaching. Now, if I read the other gospels, I learn that John is arrested because his preaching makes Herod look bad, and he’s also not too polite to the Pharisees; but listening to Mark alone I only get what is most important — details would make the story last longer! The detail is that John preaches that Jesus is coming, and is arrested; Jesus steps right into John’s place, and risks the same fate. Later in the story, Mark tells us that John is killed — Jesus risks that same fate.

This story of Jesus ends with Jesus crucified — but remember, in it’s earliest version, tradition tells us that Peter is telling this story; this story is not only the story of Jesus, but it is also the story of Peter. In Acts 2, the first apostle to speak about Jesus to the crowds is Peter, and in Acts 4, Peter is arrested for his preaching, and forbidden to speak of Jesus any more. John’s arrest not only prefigures what will happen to Jesus, but it also describes the beginning of Peter’s ministry, and the reality of the first Christians. The opening of this story reminds Christians that the world is not friendly and it has never been friendly. There is something about the gospel that those in power hope to silence. Peter does not tell us what this is during this story, he just tells the story.

I am growing to love Mark for what it is. Mark does not tell us what Jesus taught, it does not give us very many details about the story — but it does more than any other gospel get into the experiences that Jesus and the disciples had. From the beginning, we see that there is a danger to preaching this gospel. We see that Jesus is always on the move — everything feels like it happens so fast, and you can see in the story hints that Jesus and the disciples are tired. Mark has nothing subversive to say, yet the subtext is very subversive. From Jesus stepping into John’s place after John is arrested, to Jesus telling those who recognized him as something more than a prophet to keep silent, and not tell anybody; there is a sense that any moment, Jesus might be arrested or stoned. Mark is great because we know exactly what the cost of discipleship is from reading it. I don’t have the luxury of retreating into my mind — no, I march to the cross with Jesus.

Over time, I’ve come to accept that the gospel is that I’m invited to walk with Jesus — and, I have faith that if I walk with Jesus, I will end up where Jesus is — that the resurrection and final judgment will go well for me. Mark is a reminder that if I walk with Jesus, before this resurrection I might just have to end up at the cross. I don’t have the luxury to argue about how to interpret a certain teaching, or if it is a metaphor — I just have the knowledge that sometimes walking with Jesus is a march that ends at the cross. Peter knew this, and still followed Jesus to the very end of his life — and, tradition tells us that the end was that Nero had Peter crucified.

Luke 2:41-52 — Jesus grows up

Reading: Luke 2:41-52

One thing I’ve noticed is that if I want to sit down and read a biography of Jesus, there are a lot of questions that we really have no answers for. We know when we celebrate Jesus’ birthday, by tradition — but, I cannot demonstrate that we chose the right date. While we can pretty solidly say that we know when Jesus died, and scripture tells us that Jesus started his ministry at 30, there is some debate about which year Jesus was born, some, such as the 2nd century Christian writer Irenaeus, feeling that because scripture only mentions 3 Passovers, Jesus’ ministry only lasted 3 years and others noticing that it seems odd to say to a 32 year old: “But you are not yet 50,” and taking that to mean that by that point he’d been in public ministry for well over a decade.

I know what the gospels look like if you edit them all into a single narrative, because Tatian also did this in the early 2nd century. Even if this were not done then; somebody would have created the unified narrative at some point; because as long as we’ve had the gospels, people have been talking about how they are the same, how they are different, and how our understanding of Christ can be informed by each one.

What I notice when reading such a unified narrative is that it is not what I expect from a biography — of course we use the term Gospel, good news, to describe these stories of Jesus. A biography and good news are something that are entirely different; so, when we want biographical details, we end up filling in missing details from these hints. When Irenaeus read the gospel, he made this application:

For He came to save all through means of Himself— all, I say, who through Him are born again to God — infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise He was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all.

Currently, there are few who currently believe that Jesus was over 50 when he was crucified, but this is a third generation Christian scholar. Even then, there was a range of views about how old Jesus was when he died, ranging from he died at 30, the same year he was baptized to the view that he was over 50 at the crucifixion. Irenaeus was born to Christian parents, and was taught by Polycarp, who was taught by the Apostle John. Irenaeus was one of the earliest theologians to offer a theory about how salvation works — that Jesus sanctified our humanity by being God while living as a human — and even then, some pretty significant biographical details were lost. Obviously, the year Jesus was born and the details of his childhood and education were not something that is vital to the gospel.

Now, I enjoy this sort of speculation, I engage in it from time to time — but, the point is that the gospels do not provide us with a dated itinerary.  We have a better knowledge of the end of Jesus’ life than first 30 years. I personally don’t subscribe to Jesus being 50 when he was crucified, but I think it is likely that his ministry covered more than the 3 Passovers mentioned in the gospels.

The story of Jesus getting lost at the temple is one of the places where my mind really starts writing biographical fiction; my speculation goes something like this:

After Jesus’ parents returned from Egypt and made a home in Nazareth, they made it a point to spend every Passover in Jerusalem. Once a year, they and everybody else in town who had that custom would spend 4 days walking to Jerusalem. Now, Joseph was a poor man; when he gave a sacrifice, it was the alternative for the poor, he was displaced having been a political refugee in Egypt, and then relocating to Galilee. Back even before the first Temple was built a tax was established — 10% was given so that the public could celebrate. Without this tax, there would be no way that such a large community could move down the road, and that even the poor could celebrate Passover in Jerusalem — but it is possible, and this was the greatest celebration of the year — the celebration of the people of Israel becoming a free people.

Passover marks the beginning of the year — this was Jesus’ last Passover as a child. Soon it would be time for Jesus to be apprenticed in the trade that he would be in for the rest of his life — at the moment it seems likely that he would formally be apprenticed by his father and become a carpenter.

Something unexpected happened in Jerusalem; Jesus was noticed. Jesus got into a conversation about Torah with some adults, and it turned out that they found the thoughts of this child were remarkable. He got lost in discussion and study, and the group from Nazareth left without him — unfortunately this meant when Mary and Joseph realized he was not with the group, they had to turn around and go back and find him.

When they found him, they found him with the teachers, they called him back because it was past time to go home. The journey would be extra hard for them, because they would need to either make up for lost time, or they would need to travel alone. Mary and Joseph scolded Jesus for this, but he answered: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house.”

I imagine that this trip changed everything. Jesus was noticed. Jesus asserted his identity as somebody other than a Carpenter’s son. The best we can do following the gospels is a scene change that reads: 18 years later and jump’s to the Baptism of Jesus — but, we still have some hints; Jesus didn’t make a major public appearance until he was about 30, and when he was addressed, he was addressed as Rabbi.

If I were to translate Rabbi into English, Teacher would be accurate enough, Great one would be more literal, but I think I would do better to translate it “Doctor.” When we see this term used, we see it used to refer to leaders, and teachers, and great scholars. In order to understand what this word means, we have to know where it came from.

The Babylonian wise men were given the title “Rab” (great) — these were the leaders who had gone on to become teachers. The Sanhedrin borrowed this term, and gave the term Rabbi to those scholars who were recognized as being authorities in the law and prophets, able to teach and to judge according to Torah Law. When Jesus was called Rabbi, it meant something — and I suggest that it meant that 12 year old Jesus was discovered by the scholarly elite, and somebody sponsored him, and made him a student of the law. The 18 or so years between 12 and “about 30″ were likely spent in study, until the Sanhedrin were sure they could recognize his ability to teach and to judge.

I don’t know if I am right — but, if Jesus was not trained in the law as a scholar and a judge, then Rabbi was used ironically — and who knows Ph.D.’s to call somebody without credential’s “Doctor?” In general, people like to think that the honors they achieve mean something, and using a title that was not earned in an ironic sense does not help that thinking. Even in the sense of an honorary degree, one lists that in the resume as a reward and not a credential — and, the person who earned an honorary doctorate is not called Doctor.

So, in my imagination, this little moment at 12 years old could be a crisis point in a biography, instead of an isolated story. Maybe this moment set everything else into motion. The truth is that we see only a little bit of the story, and unfortunately attempts to write the biography of Jesus where we fill in the details ends up with us speculating about teenage Jesus arguing with the sons of the Pharisees, so we are left with “18 years later” and a scene change.

What we do know is just before Jesus became an adult, he impressed the religious leaders and scholars, he lost track of time, and he asserted his identity as something other than the son of a Carpenter. We know that when Jesus left his childhood, he had at least a little bit of an understanding that his life was something other than the life of a Jewish peasant in a Roman province. I don’t know what happened when they got home, all I see is 18 years later — but, it is something that sparks my curiosity.